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Creating a Legacy: How Boys' Varsity Crew Took Bronze at Nationals

After coming second at New England Interscholastic Rowing Association Championships this May, boys’ varsity crew first boat and their coxswain qualified to compete at the US Rowing Youth National Championships in June.

With the speed they harnessed since March, and the unwavering confidence of coaches Wayne Berger and Ben Hamilton, rowers Alex Berner ’11, Tanner Larson ’11, Brad Hakes ’12, Brad Plunkett ’12, and coxswain Audrey Cho ’11 trekked to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they captured the attention of the nation with a bronze medal in the final race of the Youth 4+.

While most Deerfield athletes have many years of experience under their belts, the case for these rowers is entirely different. The program builds when new students are cajoled by seasoned rowers into visiting the boathouse each spring. In a period of four years, these gangly, unsuspecting recruits transform from novice oarsmen into formidable athletes, capable of competing with some of the best programs in the nation. Neither Larson nor Berner began rowing in their freshman year, and only Plunkett arrived at Deerfield with any previous rowing experience.

The achievements of these boys were due to the passion and dedication of their coach Mr. Hamilton.  Although Mr. Hamilton’s three-year tenure as head coach came to a conclusion after Nationals, due to his transfer to the Fessenden school in Boston, the team’s medalling in Tennessee was always a dream of his, and in turn, a parting gift.

“Mr. Hamilton had initially sat us down at the beginning of the year and said ‘Gents, this year I want us to make it to Nationals. We could do something incredible here,’” said Hakes, a four-year varsity crew member and two-time captain.

The team faced a temporary setback when their former coxswain, a key component in their season’s success, Brad Tingley ’11, couldn’t make it to the race.  The four determined young men were unwilling to pass up an opportunity to prove themselves on the national level-especially considering that in 2005, Deerfield took home a silver medal in the same event. With only a few days to go before the dropping of the flag, they rallied with enthusiasm and recruited Cho, former girls’ first boat coxswain, and Mr. Berger, former Harvard men’s coach and current Deerfield girls’ coach.

“Hamilton had done a phenomenal job transforming us from rowers to racers, but felt it would be especially beneficial for us to have another set of eyes in the coaching launch,” explained Plunkett. Mr. Berger’s presence was greatly appreciated, as his collegiate coaching experience granted the boys new insight  in maximizing their boat’s efficiency. With his keen eye, Berger targeted significant aspects of the boys’ strokes and form.

Cho, who had never coxed boys before, reflected on the change she saw within the boat between the end of the regular racing season and Nationals. “Berger and Hamilton worked their magic on the boys’ technique so thoroughly that by day three, we were flying. And I mean flying. The boys were so incredibly fast, to the point where I needed a ball shoved under my feet because I kept sliding underneath the bow. It was an incredible feeling to be moving on the water so fast.”

The months of core workouts, erging, mental toughness, and intense determination finally paid off for the first boat boys in a rewarding moment, as they crossed the finish line of their brutally hot grand final race, joined again the school’s list of heroic athletes, and became recognized and applauded by both the Deerfield community and the world of national rowing.

Next year, a Deerfield crew will be back again, and according to Hakes, they are “definitely” going for the gold.

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